Handsome Ghost photo credit by Seb Keefe
Handsome Ghost Explores a More Textured Approach For Their Self-Titled Album
Handsome Ghost consists of singer/songwriter Tim Noyes and multi-instrumentalist and producer Eddie Byun. What they thought was their established, tour-driven life was substantially disrupted by Covid, but as it happened, this also meant that a particularly long period elapsed between recording their previous album, 2020’s Some Still Morning and their upcoming August 2023 self-titled release. This marks their third full-length album and their first with Nettwerk Music Group.
During that intervening period, there’s been plenty of development for the duo in terms of their musical identities, but the unique conditions of the past few years also contributed to developments in their sound, which you’ll hear on this new batch of songs. While the songs maintain a core of energy reminiscent of a live sound, there’s plenty of nuance in production and instrumentation that brings more texture and a more developed emotional climate to these songs. I spoke with Tim Noyes and Eddie Byun about their musical status as Handsome Ghost right now, what it was like to play all-new material live recently, and how they feel this new album reflects growth and development in their music.
Americana Highways: I know that Nettwerk artists tend to release EPs that then culminate as albums. Has that been your model for this self-titled album?
Tim Noyes: That’s exactly what we’ve done.
AH: So, a group of these songs have been released over time, but now we’re getting a big chunk of songs at once. When does that arrive for folks?
Eddie Byun: That’s on August 25th, I believe.
AH: It’s nice that so many songs are out already since readers can go and check out a lot of the tracks we might talk about. I’ve heard that being off the road impacted the writing a lot of these new songs. Do you think that you wrote any differently because of that? Were you disrupted in your normal methods?
Tim: We were disrupted. That was a weird time. We lived together at the beginning of the pandemic, and Eddie moved in the middle, so we were working throughout and were able to still plug along. Do you think it changed anything in our process, Ed?
Eddie: I think when you look from the bird’s eye view, it didn’t really. Tim’s pretty prolific and writes a lot of songs. Then he’ll send me batches of eight or so at a time. Sometimes those are just acoustic demos. Sometimes those are pretty fleshed out demos. I take those into the studio and start chipping away. Usually when we’re working, it’s because we’re working on a full record. We’ll want to get all the songs done pretty much at once, or at about 75%. Then we’ll revisit songs as the group comes together.
I think regarding the sonic world of the record, not living together did significantly affect things, because we had a lot of time between sessions. We’d work for about a week, then have two or three weeks off. There’s something about sitting with a song that long, where you allow thinking about the song to come actively or come passively, and jump between these worlds, allows other things to influence the songs. That allows things to develop in a really different way.
If we wanted to do something out of left field for a song, it was easier for that to come naturally if we had that break. If you’re working on a song to completion over only a couple of weeks, your headspace is the same the whole time. I think the songwriting itself was similar to records that we’ve done in the past, but Production-wise and sonically, there was a nice shift that came from that.
AH: I have heard little elements of this idea from other artists when they commented that feeling under the gun in terms of deadlines while working on an album limited the sonic ideas and that the pandemic period allowed them to revisit songs over a longer time. It’s like being willing to take a risk on a weird haircut! Do you have time for it to grow out if it turns out to be too weird? Yes, probably.
Tim: I love that.
AH: Did fans encounter these songs in any way before recording or release?
Tim: We did a lot to stay connected with fans when we were off the road, but the short answer is “Not really.” For this record, and even the one prior to this one, Some Still Morning, were never played live. We just played our first show in three years last month. We were playing a lot of songs for the first time, which was bizarre. We toured so much for many years, it was kind of our thing. I never thought that wouldn’t be part of our lives. It was bizarre playing a song for the first time that we’d written and released two years prior.
Eddie: Coming up with that setlist was really interesting because, typically, in the past, when we’ve toured, we’d keep playing the same songs. But between the last show and the one that we just played, we’d released one and a half albums. Usually when something’s new, you anchor it with familiar songs in the setlist. I’m used to knowing how things are going to be. To go out and play a show where only one of the songs was one that we’d played live before was crazy.
It was almost like playing a live show for the very first time. Our sound has changed so much too from when we were touring consistently. For our last record, we had taken a year or two off to record, so the gap was even bigger for us. It’s been five or six years, actually, since we toured consistently, though we did six shows in 2019. A lot of those standards from our set were from when, as a band, we were living in completely different sonic territory, too.
AH: This is helping me understand the differences between your previous album and this one, and there is a noticeable difference. There’s a significant gap of time there for development. How does production on the previous album compared with this one for you?
Tim: I don’t know if we changed things intentionally, but not playing live as long as we did, it was fun to have a live energy on this one. We don’t have a big band in here. We are pretty minimal. But we did our best to create the feeling of the record performing to you, as a listener.
Eddie: I think having this time away from the studio in the middle of making this record allowed us to add things like texture as transitions between songs. That type of thing, adding little bits of flare, is supremely boring when you’re working as a team. For instance, messing around for twenty minutes with a droning guitar note. But it felt good to do a lot of the groundwork, then be able to do that kind of flare in those breaks. We had the parts of the song, then we could finesse it whenever we wanted. I think those types of things, all those little details, when you add them up, do affect the sound a lot more than you’d expect. I think doing the groundwork separately helps when it comes to defining the soundscape.
AH: There’s a core of energy and liveliness at the center of each of these songs that must have been that initial element, and then we get some very interesting developments and directions.
Eddie: Tim’s voice and his guitar, for the most part, defines all the songs that we work on, though we sometimes switch out the piano. But something that happened with this record, and it’s happened in the past as well, is that the songs are a direct line from the early demos. For this record, Tim did a lot of demos that were a little more fleshed out than before. I’m a huge fan of Tim’s lyrics and melodies, but on this record, he did a lot of cool stuff with vocals on the demos, for instance, with harmonies and stacks of vocals. He also did a lot of “ooooh” parts. A lot of the moments on the record that are very instrumental, and away from those core parts, would never have come up without those harmonies that Tim had added in the first place.
On “April Song,” there’s a feel where it shifts tone from being acoustic-driven to something much bigger than that. The demo is very much acoustic but it still has that shift. The “oooohs” that are in the final track were there on the demo, and I think those elements set the tone to push things in a different way. I think any time that Tim spends extra time on the demos, it helps set the tone for something unique and special when we get into the studio. That’s something I haven’t talked about as much when I’m complimenting Tim.
Tim: Too many compliments, man! [Laughs]
Eddie: I think this record was really fun because it wasn’t just the live-sounding things in the recording that made it feel the way that it feels, it was also the way that we were thinking about stuff. We’d say, “F*ck it! Let’s get that down and see how it sounds.” “Nope? That didn’t work? What if in this melody we change this note? Do we like it?” That felt more natural in a way, but it all stemmed from the demos.
Tim: One thought, though is that this has ruined music for me! [Laughs] I wish I could go back to the way that I listened to music when I was a kid. We don’t really care if audiences think about all this stuff. We just care about how they feel when they listen. If you listen to a track, and you hear the rise at the bridge in “April Song” that hits you in the heart, that’s what we want. But now, when I listen to music, I’m thinking, “Oh, look what they did there!” I wish I could just listen to it. It’s turning to the “dark side” and it’s hard to go back! That’s why I listen to a lot of podcasts instead.
Eddie: Because of this stuff, I’ve realized I’m not the most annoying person to listen to music with. I’ll give songs like ten seconds before I decide if I care. Like Tim said, I just listen to podcasts instead. Some new songs out there, like by Chris Staples, who we’re going on tour with, have such a cool feel to them, but most songs give me these reactions.
Tim: The only benefit of being on the “dark side” is that you can still be floored by something that’s so, so good. I’ll just listen to a song for a hundred times in a row. Eddie and I have a lot of songs like that in common. There are still songs that exist that make us think, “Wowww that’s incredible!” I just have a different ear than I had when I was 19, and sometimes I wish that I could go back to that.
AH: For a couple of these songs, I can see a small thematic relationship to what we’re talking about, because there’s the idea of going back in time to something similar, or more energetic in some way. I wouldn’t call it nostalgia. I think it’s more about revisiting important memories. “Birch Trees” has that idea of going back and starting over. The video does a great job of being ambiguous about the outcome of that.
Tim: I think that’s very well said. I feel like there’s a lot of that throughout the record. A lot of times when I’m writing, I’m trying to make sense of things that have happened in the past. Sometimes, it’s random stuff, just a memory, but it fits with the song, and it goes with where the song takes you. We work with my brother Nick [Noyes] on just about all our videos, and I think he did a great job with that. “Ambiguous” is the right word. It’s asking, “What’s going to happen with you two?” And I think that’s the messaging behind the band, too.
Eddie: I think Nick is basically a member of the band at this point, when it comes to telling the stories. That’s also because of the importance of his viewpoint on the songs. With the video for “Like You Lost Your Mind,” a recent single, that was all Nick just going and making a video and then showing it to us. He’s got a particular style which, thankfully, really suits our songs. And we’re lucky to have someone like him, as brilliant as he is, to help us bring things out in the songs. You’ll see that in the “April Song” video, which is coming up, too.
Thanks Tim and Eddie, from Handsome Ghost, for chatting with us! Find more information and tour dates here: https://www.handsomestghost.com/